The Product takes shape
As mentioned earlier, there are the core cultural facilities such as museums that were the original focus of cooperative marketing, but as non-profit galleries and for-profit galleries developed or were recognized for their importance in creating a destination, these were included. The performing arts facilities were also included as were events as witnessed in the Artworks! Festival material.
The secondary product in the cultural arena was the antiques malls and the bookstores that also contributed to attracting visitors. Some of the tertiary product included the Pier, the area hotels, parks, architecture, restaurants and the like; but we recognized that all of these elements were needed to create a true cultural destination.
Another factor was people. There really needed to be people and pedestrian traffic in a safe environment. Many of the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area had become magnets for prostitution and drug dealing and included many vacant and boarded up houses and former rooming houses. But this is the subject of another section on neighborhoods that is covered next.
Many of downtown St. Petersburg’s neighborhoods had become infested with outdated housing stock, drug dealers and prostitutes along with homeless people and petty crime. This type of environment keeps visitors away. It is also not a place most people interested in cultural life would live. Nonetheless, several groups of citizens started working on improving these neighborhoods that bordered the downtown area early on, notably in the Vinoy Park, Old Southeast and Round Lake neighborhoods.
Frequently these groups were at odds on how to best improve the area, with some wanting higher density, others wanting low density, and both groups with a somewhat antagonistic approach to City Hall in this author’s opinion.
The Round Lake area expanded its scope to include four other in-town neighborhoods which eventually became known as the Uptown Neighborhoods comprised of Round Lake, the southern part of Crescent Lake, Euclid and the St. Anthony’s area. It was not until David Fischer became mayor at the same time as a change in city charter to strong mayor from city manager form of government happened at the same time that something seriously happened that would have an impact on downtown St. Petersburg for many years to come.
The day after the elections Dave Fischer called me into his office and Operation Commitment was started, focusing every city effort on the Uptown Neighborhoods in a test that proved successful at cleaning this area up, raising the property values and increasing the tax base for St. Petersburg. It was officially announced in May, 1993. New construction followed and new commercial activity started to happen in an area that was all but considered a crime haven. It also provided a safe and upcoming neighborhood for the professionals moving to the area due to the cultural attractions and emerging growth climate of downtown.
Other neighborhoods followed in the coming years but this was the first effort that was truly a citywide effort to clean up a targeted neighborhood. There were no stops pulled with all city departments being active and much work being done in concert with the neighborhood associations. With nicer neighborhoods, the city was able to attract better paying jobs, enhanced cultural facilities and provide better housing for those who were coming into the city to work.
Further contributing to St. Petersburg’s commitment to the neighborhoods was the appointment of a Neighborhood Czar, Mike Dove, and staff. The Council of Neighborhood Associations developed a Neighborhood Leadership Program about the same time that was modeled after the successful Leadership St. Petersburg.
There were many other things that contributed to St. Petersburg’s neighborhood improvements, from the passing of legislation to allow a Nuisance Abatement Board and grants to plant more trees, to the efforts of neighborhood activist and architect Tim Clemmons’ pushing the allowance of sidewalk cafes.
Chamber of Commerce
The Chamber’s involvements included the neighborhoods as Rick Baker, then president of the Chamber, helped coordinate and start this program with the first meeting being in the home of Jon and Hilary Clarke. I attended along with Dave Prior from the Uptown Neighborhoods. This program helped develop leaders for the neighborhoods and continues today. Rick was also instrumental in showing the efforts of the Uptown Neighborhoods groups work to future governor of Florida Jeb Bush. I remember a homeless man walking through the park with a twelve-pack of Bush beer. Jeb made a comment about the beer to him as he passed and said just like the President. The homeless man said yeah, and he has a brother in Florida who is running for Governor. This was 1992 long before Jeb was widely known.
The Chamber was also instrumental in assisting with the Artworks! Festival previously mentioned. The president, Paul Getting, provided the office space and infrastructure to allow the chamber to become the umbrella organization for the festival and it was all done very inexpensively. The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce recognizes importance of culture in a 1995 publication that can be viewed by clicking the link.
In addition, several museums worked with the St. Pete Beach Chamber, and Penny Mathes its director, whom we sent on a joint sales mission to South America in the early 1990s. The beach chamber was the one focused on tourism.
The Dali Museum also participated in a sales mission to Brazil when that market was emerging by sending Portuguese-speaking docent Charlotte Smythe. This was done in conjunction with the then-Tampa Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Bureau and really helped lead the way for South American tourists to the area who in turn visited museums and discovered the concentration of culture in the downtown. It was after some of these grass roots efforts that the sales arm of the Pinellas County TDC (Discover Florida’s Suncoast) started to focus on this market and eventually hired a South American representative.
The chamber also helped contribute to the positioning of St. Petersburg in its visitor guide, and the tourist information centers soon were distributing materials that promoted all the museums and cultural facilities.
While the thrust of changing St. Petersburg came from within, the assistance of various governmental agencies certainly contributed and the individuals involved were a great reason why. The Pinellas County Arts Council, under the directorship of Judith Powers Jones, was always available to help and provided small grants to organizations. But, like the CVB was a county organization and the promotion of one area over another wasn’t good policy. The city also contributed significantly by co-sponsoring events that allowed for police, fire and trash removal as an in-kind donation to the event. And as I mentioned before, Anita Treiser with the city, had a passion and a vision that was shared by the core group of people who worked to position St. Petersburg as a cultural destination.
In addition, a city staff member, Anita mentioned above, was assigned to assist the museums and form a group that met periodically to discuss matters of common concern. The city also assisted with Museum Month by printing collateral on the city’s presses, promoting museums through the city television channel and water bill inserts.
The City of St. Petersburg was one of the few cities to provide financial support to the arts in 1992 with $225,446 in its budget as a line item to be granted to 21 cultural organizations.